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Heavy Soul

Your leader and our lapdog" is how Paul Weller describes President George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair. Blair is the youthful liberal who seems to be the only world leader dumb, or crazy, enough to back Bush unconditionally in his imminent war against Iraq. "It took eighteen years to get rid of Thatcher and get Blair's Labor government in, and now he just takes orders from Bush," says Weller. "It's sad that after all this time, nothing's really changed."

Maybe nothing's changed in the realm of bipartisan politics over the last couple of decades, but in Weller's life, just about everything has. The 44-year-old songwriter has gone from teen pinup to soul balladeer to pop elder statesman in the course of his quarter-century in the music business. Nowadays, though, he seems content doing what he does best: writing songs.

A native of Woking, England, Weller made his first mark in the world in 1977 at age eighteen as the singer/guitarist for the Jam. A contemporary of the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Jam force-fed raw chunks of punk aggression into the classic British songwriting tradition of the Small Faces and the Kinks -- in the process becoming the most consistent English chart-placing group since the Beatles. Weller's revival of mid-'60s mod fashion and sound provided a sharp contrast to the glitzy futurism of new wave. As the band wound down in the early '80s, it began to experiment with funk, post-punk and psychedelia, but it never lost touch with its nose-to-the-grindstone punk essence.

After the Jam disbanded in 1982, Weller formed the Style Council, a much more polished outfit that swept through the synthesized '80s with a soft, pastel-soul sophistication. The band's 1983 near-hit in the United States, "My Ever Changing Moods," remains a staple of AOR-radio programming. The Council adjourned in 1989 after a deep drop in popularity, prompting Weller to go solo, a move that saw him adopt a more mature, organic style. Although it took a while for his soulful hybrid of Marvin Gaye, Nick Drake and Traffic-era Steve Winwood to catch on, he refused to include any of the Jam's songs in his solo live sets, regardless of how much it might have bolstered his in-concert appeal.

"On my rocky road climbing back up after the Style Council, I just wanted to try to make it on my own merits," he says, shrugging off the fact that the eighteen Top 40 hits he wrote for the Jam clearly fall into the domain of "his own merits." "I didn't want to trade in on nostalgia. I wanted it to be new stuff, a new direction. But now I kind of think I've proven my point."

Point taken. Weller occupies a perennial post atop the pop charts in the United Kingdom, and in 2000, he set up a sold-out tour performing acoustic versions of material from his first five solo albums. On a whim, he spiked the set list with Jam anthems like "That's Entertainment" and "A Town Called Malice."

"I just kind of sprang it on people. I remember playing "English Rose," which I think the Jam only played in the studio. No one had ever heard that song live, actually," he recalls. Some of these unplugged tracks, along with the audience's enraptured response, are captured on his Days of Speed live album. Weller says, chuckling in reminiscence: "I think that was quite a surprise to a lot of people."

Some may also find themselves quite surprised by Illumination, Weller's new album and his first to be released in the States since 1997's Heavy Soul. Gone are the slick varnishes and orchestral arrangements of 2000's Heliocentric; in their place are the rough-hewn textures of first-take demo recordings. The sound is raw, unfiltered Brit rock with a thorny edge of pop, blues, folk and soul.

"I was disappointed with Heliocentric. It took about three and a half weeks to record it and then seven or eight to mix it. It was fucking ridiculous," Weller admits. "There's a lot of good things about modern studio technology, but sometimes it gets really frustrating. The whole technological process of recording these days is sort of soul-sapping to me."

"With Illumination, I wanted to get back to making records quickly," he continues. "Just getting the performance down, and the spirit of the track too. If it's a good song and everyone who's playing is into it, who cares whether the high hat's perfect or not?"

Surely it doesn't hurt to have an illustrious backup band in the studio. Besides the usual assist from Style Council drummer Steve White and Ocean Colour Scene's Steve Craddock and Damon Minchella, Weller enlisted the guitar expertise of the Stone Roses' Aziz Ibrahim, as well as Oasis's Gem Archer and Noel Gallagher. Weller, of course, is merely returning the favor: His is the soaring solo on Oasis's 1995 smash "Champagne Supernova."

"The first song we did for the album was 'One X One.' It was just me and Gem playing some acoustic guitars and Noel playing some percussion behind us, then Noel put the bass on," Weller says. "It's just the demo, really, so there are bits that are out of tune and little fuckups, but I don't think the recording would have been improved by changing them."

Another fruitful collaboration is "Call Me No. 5," a bluesy duet between Weller and the Stereophonics' Kelly Jones. "Going Places" is a lush ode to love and devotion suffused with creaky vintage organ and Weller's mirage-like vocals, while "Standing Out in the Universe" is a smoldering soul epic. The obvious hit of Illumination, though, is the effusive "It's Written in the Stars." The track opens with a brassy trumpet loop before burying itself in layers of shuffling drums, ticklish bass and funky keys. Between tracks like "Leafy Mysteries," "Who Brings Joy," and "Spring (At Last)," the album sounds downright optimistic.

"I get pegged as a miserable old sod, and I have my moments, but I think I'm quite a positive person," says Weller, whose angst and outspokenness are as legendary in England as his songs. "With this album, I just wanted something that would give people a positive feeling, an inspirational feeling." More than simply "positive," Illumination's lyrics, full of pastoral imagery and childlike wonder, all show an affinity for good old-fashioned English Romanticism.

"Romantics? Let me think. You don't mean like Boy George, do you?" replies Weller when quizzed on the pre-Victorian literary movement.

No, not the New Romantics...

"Oh, you mean like Shelley and all that. There's that one album where we used some of the stuff from Shelley's Mask of Anarchy on the back cover," says Weller, referring to the Jam's 1980 masterpiece Sound Affects -- an album he once admitted was equally influenced by Joy Division, George Harrison and Michael Jackson's Off the Wall. "I don't want to come on like I'm some big literary kind of person, because I'm not that educated, but I think stuff like Shelley and Blake is just so stirring, so brilliant. It's the same thing with a lot of biblical imagery: Regardless of the pros and cons of religion or Christianity, there's a lot of stuff from the Bible that has that kind of quality."

Though wishing to make it clear that he hasn't been "converted," Weller shows a newfound tolerance for religion -- at least the non-organized kind -- in the song "All Good Books": "If Jesus could hear us now/Bending all his words/Of which he's proud/If Mohammed could see us now/Shaking down the walls/But not as prayer."

"I wrote 'All Good Books' months before September 11," Weller says, "though it definitely came much more into focus and relevance afterward. It's about people using the Bible or the Koran for their own ends. It's all been corrupted." Though outraged and impassioned, the song's icing-smooth sound is rooted more in mid-'70s Curtis Mayfield than late-'70s punk. Weller was the first songwriter of the original punk generation to fully embrace soul music; the Jam recorded raw yet faithful covers of everything from Martha Reeves's "Heat Wave" to Mayfield's own "Move On Up."

"Curtis was the master of that, wasn't he? Being gentle and serious at the same time," Weller observes of the late soul legend. "He was unique in that sense. When I think about Curtis, I can't help but think about how cruelly he was cut down." Mayfield died in 1999 after struggling through ten years of quadriplegia, the result of a freak on-stage accident. "For all the positivity and love he ever sent out to the world through his music, the way it was all stripped away from him was fucking awful. It does make you stop and think about how the universe can be so arbitrary."

Brightly though it may shine, Illumination still has shadows of Weller's bitter, pensive cynicism. "A Bullet for Everyone" is a well-aimed indictment of defense spending over domestic programs, a dark, harp-scorched blues that proclaims, "They say there's no provisions/Not enough to go around/But when it comes to the gun/There's a bullet for everyone." On the album's spectral, folk-tinged title track, Weller intones like a wayward ghost, "Where am I going to/Without your undying love/I'm as worthless as a cold, cold sun/That shines for no one."

Weller, though, now seems content to keep his more morose tendencies understated. Throughout all the stages of his career, his music has struck a balance between the tough and the tender, the political and the romantic, the uplifting and the pissed off. "I'm kind of old- fashioned that way," he says. "Even though I love a lot of contemporary R&B like D'Angelo and Angie Stone, the one thing that really bugs me about it is that you can't tell where one track stops and the other starts. It's all the same sort of beat, the same tempo. What's the matter with a slow song and then a fast song, a sad song and then a happy song? It could just be a bit more dynamic, a bit more varied."

Musical variety, of course, isn't the only kind of diversity Weller's been espousing lately.

"There's hardly any difference between the politicians anymore. Things were so much more extreme in the '80s with Thatcher and Reagan than they are now with Blair and Bush," he says, sounding almost nostalgic for the days of England's miners' strikes and America's trickle-down economics. "It was easier to know which side of the line you stood on, you know? All those lines have become blurred. Or Blaired, I suppose."

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Jason Heller
Contact: Jason Heller